Mitt Romney’s visit to London this week - a visit he handled so disastrously that both the prime minister and the mayor of London (Conservatives both) were piqued into mocking him publicly - has brought many Brits face-to-face with this year’s U.S. presidential election for the first time.
Britain and America have been described as two countries divided by a common language, but the bewilderment extends well beyond the linguistic: it spills over into religion and politics as well. Indeed, in the U.S., the First Amendment notwithstanding, religion and politics seem largely intertwined: right-wing politics especially.
And here our puzzlement only deepens. For in the United Kingdom “Christian” tends to be seen as a shorthand for “trying to be kind; trying to care about others; trying not to be selfish; trying not to be judgmental.” In short, it amounts to “trying to be a good person,” which , of course, those of us who don’t think of ourselves as Christian are trying to do too.
Concern for others and a sense of obligation towards them have long been a part of the British national character, or so we like to think. Our National Health Service, for instance, is one of the few things for which we notoriously reserved Brits can be depended on to show passionate support: our provision of healthcare, free at the point of delivery, for all who need it, regardless of ability to pay, is a source of real national pride to us.
The fierce, often vicious, opposition to “Obamacare” in the U.S. therefore left us completely baffled. All the more so because the most passionate resistance seemed to be coming from the very people most likely to claim their lives are based on Christian values.
I write, of course, as an atheist: but an atheist who used to be a committed Christian and who still remembers feeling deeply inspired by the sheer humanity of the character of Jesus as shown in the Gospels. Another time I might argue about the historical reliability (or otherwise) of the Gospels and take issue with other aspects of their message. But for now I want to take them at face value and ask: what would the Jesus of the Gospels make of some of the shibboleths of U.S. politics?
Let us start with the question of wealth. Far from emphasizing the importance of wealth-creation, Jesus repeatedly told his followers to forsake it; that it would get in the way of their relationship with God. His advice to a wealthy would-be disciple? Sell all you have and give it to the poor. And give it to the poor! No sign here that he thought of the poor as being to blame for their own predicament, people to be frowned on, people who did not deserve to have their well-being taken into account. Suppose Jesus really were alive today. Would he despise the poor? Ignore their needs? Begrudge their miserable welfare hand-outs? Cheer at the idea of letting the uninsured die of disease?
The Gospels show us a man who shunned the respectable, reaching out instead to the poor and weak, seeking out society’s rejects and publicly aligning himself with them. Would the Jesus who healed abundantly have been outraged at the idea of “Obamacare”? At the suggestion that he should put his hand in his pocket to help ensure the poorest in the wealthiest nation on Earth did not have to live in fear of illness?
And then there’s the baffling issue of guns. To a nation in which not even our police are routinely armed, the power of the gun lobby in the US is simply incomprehensible: the reality of rampant gun-ownership in America seems to bear little resemblance to the “well regulated militia” foreseen in the Second Amendment. American Christians: can you imagine any circumstances in which the Jesus who said “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” would approve of your owning a gun?
To Brits watching from across the Atlantic, U.S. society seems worryingly divided. Not just between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, but also between those who consider themselves respectable and those whom those same people do not consider respectable. I can think of no other industrially and commercially advanced country - much less an avowedly Christian one - in which it is apparently so acceptable to demonize those who do not share your beliefs, for example, or your sexual orientation. The sight of American Christians in full self-righteous fervor, working themselves up into a rage over other people’s beliefs and other people’s sexuality, is hard to reconcile with the Jesus of the Gospels, whose anger was almost exclusively reserved for those who dared to judge and look down on others; the Jesus who, himself, chose always to align himself with those so judged.
Romney, of course, is a Mormon. But many of those who support the right-wing politics he espouses will be mainstream Christians. Christians, it must be said, whose Bibles must contain very different accounts of Jesus’s teachings than the one on my bookshelf.